How negative language affects communication

We all live in different types of relationships with other people, and how we communicate with them can help us maintain, strengthen, or break those relationships.

As a result, countless researchers have studied human communication, and there are countless studies on the interaction between the sender and receiver of a message, the impact of openness, the effects of praise and criticism, and even the influence of non-verbal factors such as gestures.

Obviously, it’s impossible to cover all of them in a limited space, but it’s worthwhile to pick out one interesting topic and think about how much communication is influenced by subtle factors.

In this article, we’ll look at an example of how the use of negative words can change the outcome of a communication. In English, “not” is a typical negative word, and in Korean, “no,” “can’t,” “not,” “not,” “say,” and so on.

In fact, we often use the phrase “OO does not” when we say something. Why do we use such a negative expression when we could just say the opposite, “XX does”?

This is something that is often pointed out by people who are trying to clean up our language and promote correct usage. But there’s a very interesting psychological reason behind it. The bottom line is that our subconscious minds want to put in place safeguards. But the price of that safety is often miscommunication and dissonance. So we need to be careful.

Research done in the 1940s by an American social researcher named Donald Rugg shows that interesting reversals can be easily observed in the use of negatives. One famous example is the so-called difference between allow and forbid. He asked Americans the following questions.

Question A: Do you think our country (the United States) should allow public speech that criticizes democracy?

To this question, 62% of Americans chose “no”. That’s a majority of almost two-thirds. But if we rephrase the question slightly, the results are quite different.

Question B: Do you think my country (the United States) should ban public speech that criticizes democracy?

To this question, only 46% of Americans say “yes”. This is despite the fact that a “no” to question A and a “yes” to question B both semantically mean a ban. Why this discrepancy?

It’s not too hard to guess. Opposing permission is a broader expression of psychological retreat, a step back from “forbid”. The retreat here would be consistent with being less decisive, less courageous, and therefore less burdensome. In other words, not allow and forbid are semantically the same thing, but in terms of psychological intensity, the latter is naturally stronger and can sometimes be thought of as radically different.

A similar phenomenon was observed in another poll conducted by Donald Rugg in his time. By using the question “should abortion be banned” rather than “should abortion be allowed”, he was able to elicit a much higher percentage of positive responses from respondents, such as “yes” or “I agree with that opinion”.

Again, the latter question may have been less intimidating because it gave people a wider psychological outlet.

Not A is = B? The illusion of negation and the difficulty of communication.
What can we learn from this? For example, the phrase B, which we usually think of as the opposite of A, often doesn’t mean exactly as much as “is not A”.

This is because the expression “is not A” often includes B as well, covering more cases and possibilities. For example, when someone answers “I don’t love you” to the question “Do you love me?”, it’s easy to get confused. “Does he just like me?”, “Does he not care?”, “Does he feel differently?”, or “Does he have other feelings?”.

Therefore, when you need to be clear or precise, you should minimize the use of the negative “not” as much as possible. In English, this means minimizing the use of not. Otherwise, there will be a disparity in the “degree” or “intensity” of the meaning between those who convey it and those who receive it, which can lead to various misunderstandings.

Nevertheless, we often use expressions that contain negative words. When do we do this? In short, when we’re unsure of ourselves or want to take a little less responsibility. This is the same reason why public officials under scrutiny in national audits often use the phrase “I tend to” instead of “I don’t tend to”.

But what happens when this is overused? The other side is likely to misunderstand even more, because the negation opens up a whole host of alternative interpretations. The result is dissonance and difficulty in communication. That’s why it’s important to be clear. This is especially true when you’re addressing a group of people.

The older you get, and the more you’re in a leadership position, the more you’re in a one-to-many communication situation. That’s why it’s important for each of us to reflect on whether or not we’re using negative language more often than necessary.

Change Your Words to Change Your Mind and Your Communication
According to linguistic analysis studies, the use of negative words in everyday conversation and writing has been increasing in recent years. Most researchers in this field agree that the use of negative words is strongly associated with anxiety and a desire to “hide” one’s intentions.3) 4) But what may be even more interesting is that we can change our thoughts and minds by changing the words we use.

A well-known researcher in this field, Professor James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, USA, has shown in several studies that correcting language usage patterns can lead to psychological improvements. Correction doesn’t have to be overwhelming. The idea is that if you write or speak sincerely and often, minimizing the use of negative words, many of the distorted aspects of your inner world will naturally fall into place. The relationship between mind and words in communication is an intricate one.

Of course, there’s always the risk of getting caught up in gibberish or backlash if you’re too open and honest with others. But in a space where you’re alone, you can do this to your heart’s content. A great example of this is journaling.

Not only is it a great way to record your history, but it’s also a great opportunity for psychological correction and, in turn, healthier verbal communication. In fact, it’s not hard to find studies and real-life experiences that show that interpersonal skills are improved through journaling. One more important reason to keep a journal.

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